“Sniff test” your cabinet – it may be full of spices but are they still usable?
Even if you cook every day, there’s always a chance you’re going to run into a situation where you just don’t have all of the spices that you need to finish a dish. It’s why I always tell everyone that the most important first step in any recipe is to read it through at least once before you start cooking and double check your cupboards for the ingredients and spices you’ll need.
The other problem – and this happens once in a while in my kitchen – is that you see a spice that you have, but it’s too old. Unfortunately, the shelf life of dried spices is – at the most – only about 12 months. Some finicky “spicers” say that dried spices only last 6 – 8 months.
The best way to know if your spices are ‘still good’ is to bring them out every so often – and sniff them! I know that might sound weird, but it’s the best way to check if they still have potency. Or… you can wait to check them until it’s time to assemble your ingredients. Either way, remember that just because the can or bottle looks good doesn’t mean that the spices they contain ARE good. If they lose their fragrance, then it’s time to replace. Even dried spices should have a robust aroma as you open the container. If they don’t, they won’t impart enough of their flavor into your dish.
If you don’t cook very often, or a particular spice is a bit unusual, buy the smallest size container you can find. A friend of mine takes the time to write the date of purchase on all of her spices. That’s a great idea, but I’m not sure it’s necessary when you just need to ‘sniff’ them. Instead, I’m more concerned about what’s actually in my spice cabinet – so that I’m ready for just about anything.
In my video, I give you a short list of what I consider seven genuinely essential spices. I’ve expanded that list to 15 for my blog readers:
- Kosher Salt – always used by professional cooks and good home cooks. Ideal for cooking because it’s less salty than iodized salt by volume, so you have better control.
- Salt Crystals and Whole Peppercorns – you’ll need salt and pepper grinders. Once you get in the habit of using grinders, you’ll never go back to granular salt and pepper. The difference in flavor is very noticeable.
- Rosemary – one of my top three herbs. Rosemary is used in a lot of Mediterranean and French style cooking.
- Oregano – number two in my herb list. This one is widely used in both Mexican and Italian cuisines.
- Thyme – and number three in my herb list – a very aromatic way to ‘spice up’ proteins, especially poultry.
- Garlic Powder – fresh is better for more garlic flavor, but sometimes you’re caught without any fresh garlic in the kitchen. Or, perhaps you don’t like the smell in the kitchen and on your fingers. Or sometimes all you need is a dash of flavor. Go for the “roasted garlic” variety – it imparts a deeper flavor.
- Crushed Red Pepper – an essential spice for African and Mexican dishes, but this is my most favorite way to season meats and veggies. Just add a dash at a time to flavor.
- Chili Powder – a spice mix in itself. Depending on the brand, it’s built around Cayenne pepper, but many other spices are added – read the label.
- Cayenne Pepper – for that recipe where you need a pinch of extra heat.
- Ground Cinnamon – used in both sweet and savory recipes.
- Cumin – an aromatic spice used in many different cuisines, either whole or ground. If you’re using whole for your recipe, take a few minutes and toast it before adding it to your dish. The difference in flavor is immediately noticeable.
- Curry Powder – which is also a blend of other spices, typically coriander, turmeric, mustard, cumin, and fenugreek. You can use it to spice up curry (of course), but I use it quite a lot on my roasted or fried veggies and even on French fries!
- Ground Ginger – used in a lot of Asian and other international cuisines.
- Smoked Paprika – the subtle smoky flavor adds a bit of complexity to just about any dish.
- Vanilla Extract – because, who doesn’t have at least a small bottle of this pure joy? And to be perfectly honest, I love the purity of Simply Organic, Madagascar pure Vanilla extract. Be careful to look for pure vanilla extract – you don’t want the artificial flavor.
Now, the question that often gets tossed at me is where to get the best spices? Personally, I like the consistency of the spices I get from Spice Hunter, McCormick, Morton&Bassett, and Simply Organic. And of course, salt – who else but Morton?